Rep. Nick J. Rahall
Amid the budget morass griping the nation’s Capital these days, one tried and true formula for growing our economy to create jobs to help shrink our federal budget deficit, which should gain bipartisan and widespread support, which is to again invest in our crumbling infrastructure.
Our U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood — a Republican — recently described our federal highways as “America’s one big pothole.” I will be the first to second the Secretary’s point. West Virginians for Better Transportation recently reported that poor road conditions in our state cost motorists on the average $229 annually.
I serve as the senior ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee so I can continue to make the case for our state’s needs in the Congress. The committee has a new Republican chairman, Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania. I served with his father, who also chaired this committee. Chairman Shuster and I hope to enjoy a strong, good working relationship in part due to our friendship but also because we understand that infrastructure is not only a foundation of our economy, it is also an engine of the economy spurring job growth.
Recently, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and representatives of the AFL-CIO both testified before my committee about the need to reinvest in our nation’s aging transportation system. For every $1 billion in transportation investments, our nation sustains or creates nearly 35,000 jobs. Every dollar spent on road, highway, and bridge improvements returns an average benefit of $5.20 by reducing delays, vehicle maintenance costs, fuel consumption, road and bridge maintenance costs, and emissions, as well as improving safety — all as a result of improved traffic flow.
Importantly, for every dollar West Virginians pay at the gas pump in federal taxes, we now receive $2.18 in return. I fight for that formula every time we renew federal highway programs because our mountainous topography means that a mile of highway construction costs our state residents more than it does in many other states. Certainly, our southern region’s rugged terrain clearly demonstrates the need for additional funding to keep us fully connected with the National Highway System.
Protecting the large return West Virginia receives is not an easily won battle in the Congress with other states arguing West Virginia should not get back more funding than it pays in taxes. The battle does not end there. Our highway projects must first become part of the state’s long range transportation plan.
I have long argued that we, here in southern West Virginia, deserve to receive a fair and equitable distribution of our state’s share of federal discretionary funds. With members of Congress inability to earmark federal funding directly to construct specific highway sections because of wrong-headed Republican leadership decisions, the discretionary fund becomes all the more important.
The State of West Virginia must use its federal discretionary funds on new projects like Routes 2, 10, 35, the King Coal Highway, the Coalfields Express, and the Beckley Z-way projects to keep progress on them moving forward.
Last summer, the Congress passed and the President signed in to law a new 23-month transportation law. This gives us some breathing room to construct a surface transportation bill to extend our nation’s highway and bridge, research, transit and rail and pipeline safety programs. It is my hope we do this sooner rather than later, and that we do it for a multi-year time period to allow states and businesses to plan long term. I hope that in drafting a new federal transportation bill, reason will prevail and earmarking federal funds for needed transportation projects will return. While earmarks alone would not be sufficient to complete a major highway, they should send a clear signal to the state about local priorities.
Additionally, Governor Tomblin’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways is helping chart long range highway development plans and is considering various revenue streams to partner with federal funding. In short, with a fair federal formula, a fair distribution of those funds by the state, federal earmarks to guide state priorities, all supplemented with proceeds from a state bond issue, should combine to let us see additional progress on our highway priorities.
(Rahall represents West Virginia’s 3rd District.)